The season began with Kentucky, Florida and Missouri hailed as formidable teams and Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Tennessee touted as programs to watch. By January, only the Gators, Tigers and Rebels had lived up to expectations. And now, with Ole Miss fading toward the bubble and Missouri unable to win on the road, SEC leading-Florida appears to be the only NCAA tournament lock in the entire 14-team league.
It's much more likely the SEC gets three or four teams into the NCAA tournament than just one, but the fact that one bid is even a remote possibility at this point is a sign of the weakness of the league this season. No power conference has produced just one NCAA tournament team since the field expanded to 64 in 1985, though the Pac-12 has flirted with that possibility in 2010 and 2012.
The SEC is in this predicament because of a combination of injuries, roster turnover and underachievement throughout the league.
Kentucky lost six of its top seven players from last year's national title team and now is also attempting to replace injured center Nerlens Noel. Ultra-consistent Vanderbilt and typically dangerous Mississippi State are both rebuilding after losing their entire starting lineups from last season. Tennessee has been without injured big man Jeronne Maymon all season. And the league's lower tier has been unusually bad out of conference even by their standards.
The result was a dearth of marquee non-league wins and a slew of a bad losses to small-conference teams, both of which dragged down the league's RPI and left very few chances for teams to secure notable wins in SEC play. The SEC's RPI is an uncharacteristically low eighth this season, right between the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley.
Of the teams behind Florida in the standings, Missouri has by far the best chance to make the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky guard Ryan Harrow (Getty Images)Even with only one true road win all season against hapless Mississippi State, the Tigers still boast an 18-7 record, a Top 40 RPI and solid victories against VCU, Illinois and Ole Miss. The Tigers cannot afford to backslide too far in their final six regular season games though, no easy task since the upcoming schedule includes Florida and Arkansas at home and Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee on the road.
Ole Miss also has realistic hope of making the field of 68, but its resume will be light on marquee wins. Not only is Missouri the only Top 50 RPI team the Rebels (19-6, 8-4) have beaten, they also have no more games remaining against teams in the upper half of the SEC except a home game against Alabama on March 5.
The only chance for Ole Miss is to keep piling up wins against bad teams in hopes that's enough to sway the selection committee. The Rebels probably wouldn't be excluded at 14-4 in the SEC if they win their final six games, but throw in another bad loss or two and they'll have major work to do in the SEC tournament.
Kentucky isn't dead yet either despite the 30-point beatdown the Wildcats endured in Knoxville on Saturday in their first game without Nerlens Noel.
The problem for Kentucky is its lone notable win of the season came at Ole Miss a few weeks ago. Either the Wildcats close out the season with four or five wins in their final six games and prove to the selection committee they belong in the field even without Noel, or they'll probably go from the national title to the NIT.
Beyond those four, the SEC's NCAA tournament hopes are bleak.
Maybe Alabama (16-9, 9-3) atones for dreadful non-league losses against Mercer and Tulane by amassing a gaudy SEC record and perhaps throwing in a March 2 upset of Florida on top of that? Perhaps Tennessee or Arkansas catch fire the next few weeks and in the SEC tournament?
But more likely, those three are all NIT teams, and it will be up to Missouri, Ole Miss and Kentucky to ensure Florida doesn't become the SEC's lone NCAA tournament representative.